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Which Decade Has Been Coach K’s Best At Duke?

He says the teens but you can argue for others.

Brown v Duke
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils argues with an official during the second half of their game against the Brown Bears at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 75-50.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Mike Krzyzewski opined the other day that, over his 39 years and counting at the helm of Duke men’s basketball, the program saw its greatest success in the decade just past. Without either challenge or prompting he proceeded to reel off the Blue Devils’ average record over the 2010s and their other pinnacle achievements.

He made a persuasive, unchallenged case. Besides, who should know better than Krzyzewski which decade was most impressive?

Adding to the degree of difficulty, after not losing anyone early to the NBA prior to 1999, the most recent stretch included a rush of stars and stalwarts leaving school with eligibility remaining, 18 in 10 years. Making the juggling act more intense, players left Duke early in droves in the 2010s: four in 2017 and three each in 2015, 2018 and 2019. Keeping up superlative competitive standards despite such transition is a rare feat.

Along the way the ‘teens saw two NCAA and four ACC titles for Duke. Glaringly absent was one measure of consistency – finishing atop the ACC regular-season standings. The Devils did that only in 2010, when a veteran unit tied Maryland and went on to shock even Krzyzewski by winning the national championship.

“You’d probably look at the last decade and say, in three or four of those seasons we had a hell of a schedule and finished one game behind,” Krzyzewski said of regular-season prowess, recalling 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. “So am I supposed to say we had a bad year because we didn’t win? It’s stupid, and it’s stupid to say that.

“We won four (ACC) tournament titles. The main thing we won were two national titles and being No. 1 seeds a number of years (4). It’s a hell of a decade. It’s our best decade of the four decades that I’ve been here because it’s been the most consistent. When you average 30-7, 30 wins and 7 losses in 10 seasons, come on.”

Krzyzewski’s the expert on his program. Like Dean Smith at the peak of his UNC program’s prowess from the late 60’s to the late 90’s, he has the stats on the tip of his tongue to bolster his argument. Still, it’s worth using a few comparative stats, setting aside issues like health, personnel turnover, Olympic squad coaching, and plain luck, to test out Krzyzewski’s assertion.

Turns out there’s room for disagreement.

Starting with the chart that follows, if you consider categories like top NCAA seeds, appearances in NCAA championship games, deep penetrations in the NCAA tournament, and prosperity against high-quality play within the ACC, a very strong argument can be made for the 1990s as the best during the Krzyzewski era. Especially if the 13-18 record of 1995, half-attributed to Pete Gaudet, is excluded.

Duke Record Across Decades Under Mike Krzyzewski
1980s 20-9 16-6 6 0 3 2 1
1990s 27-8 32-7 9 2 5 2 6
2000s 29-6 23-9 10 1 2 7 4
2010s 30-7 26-8 10 2 2 4 1